Long before Dr. Rajiv J. Shah became president of The Rockefeller Foundation in New York City in 2017, he earned a reputation for his dedication and passion for finding solutions to an array of humanitarian crises around the globe.
He readily attributes the genesis of that commitment to a trip he made with his family to India when he was a young boy.
“One of my uncles took me into a slum outside of Mumbai,” Shah recalls. “Even today I can close my eyes and (remember) the sights and smells, and the kids that were smiling and playing happily with a ball in raw sewage — the kinds of impoverished conditions and poverty that I’d never, ever before seen or understood existed in that visceral way.
“Having that experience when I was very young was a powerful motivator for me. I wanted to do something about that, although I didn’t know what could be done.”
What Shah witnessed on that trip was a stark contrast to the life he lived growing up in West Bloomfield Township.
“We lived at Middle Belt and Walnut Lake roads,” Shah says. “In the summertime I’d get on my Huffy bicycle, knock on neighbors’ doors, and get other kids (to get) on their bikes and just go places. It was pretty unplanned and very unstructured. I went to public schools in the Birmingham school district — West Maple Middle School, and then Groves High School. I was on the debate team and I played on the tennis team.”
Shah’s father worked at Ford Motor Co. and the journey he took — literally — to secure that job left an indelible impression on his son.
“(My grandfather) cashed out his entire retirement savings account to buy my dad a one-way plane ticket to come to the U.S. from India in the late 1960s, knowing that if he succeeded, he would be able to take care of so many people in his life, including his own children,” Shah says.
“He got a scholarship toward a master’s degree in engineering at the University of Arizona. It was impressed upon my sister and me every day that we had to recognize and appreciate that sacrifice, and take advantage of it by working hard and getting good grades.”
For a time it seemed Shah might follow the path his father had forged, and pursue a career in the auto industry.
“He was a mechanical and electrical engineer at Ford for 30-plus years. I remember he did a lot of work on catalytic converters, and very early work on engine control systems,” Shah says. “In Birmingham in the seventh grade, you started taking pre-engineering drafting courses, and by the time I was at Groves there was a whole track on automotive engineering. I always thought I wanted to be an automotive engineer.”
Then Nelson Mandela visited Detroit in 1990, three months after his release from a 27-year prison sentence as a political prisoner in South Africa. Shah, just 17 years old and finishing his junior year at Groves, was mesmerized.
“His visit was covered 24/7 on TV in Detroit,” Shah says, “and I got to watch him speak at Tiger Stadium. I’d already started to learn about politics and government in the U.S. and was really motivated watching the 1984 Democratic Convention, and (was) getting super excited about all the speeches. So that earlier trip to India and then Mandela’s visit to Detroit were both motivators for me to be part of helping to make the world a better place, and bend my career to that task.”
In his early days at the University of Michigan, where he headed after graduating from Groves, Shah thought a career in medicine was the best way to achieve his goal. “I was raised in an Indian immigrant family,” he says, “so if you weren’t going to be an engineer, you were going to be a doctor.”
And Shah did, indeed, pursue medicine — “out of a desire to help kids,” he says — but he also studied at the London School of Economics during his junior year. He ultimately graduated from Michigan with Phi Beta Kappa honors and an undergraduate degree in economics. From there, he made another memorable visit to his family’s native country.
“I spent a summer working with a very poor tribal group in the southern part of India,” he says, “and got to work on those poverty issues that were a motivator for me.”
Shah went on to earn a medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, followed by a year at the Wharton School of Business, where he added a business degree to his resume.
“Outside of my training as a doctor, I didn’t practice medicine,” Shah says. “When I completed my degree at Wharton, it was with an eye toward being involved in health policy. After my last set of board exams, my girlfriend and I — she’s now my wife — got in our car and drove 14 hours to Nashville, and I started as a volunteer on Al Gore’s presidential campaign.
“I became more active in health care policy issues in particular. I built great friendships and relationships, and a lot of subsequent opportunities came out of that experience.”
The most immediate opportunity came in 2001 with the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where Shah filled a range of leadership roles over the ensuing eight years. “They were just at the point of setting up their foundation, and spending billions of dollars and (putting) a tremendous amount of time and effort and intellectual energy into seeing if we could, quite literally, save millions of children’s lives around the world,” Shah says.
To that end, he helped launch the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a promising agricultural-development program, as well as the International Financing Facility for Immunization, which raised more than $5 billion for childhood immunizations worldwide.
“It was a big global effort to extend the reach of vaccines to every child on the planet,” he explains. “I’m so excited by what we accomplished because that effort has led to immunizing almost 580 million children and saving more than 6 million children’s lives. For me it was a very important and rewarding experience.”
Shah left the Gates Foundation in 2009 to serve in the administration of incoming president Barack Obama. His first stop was in the Department of Agriculture, followed by nearly six years at the helm of the U.S. Agency for International Development, where he managed a $20-billion budget and led a team at the forefront of responding to major disasters and crises worldwide.
“Visiting that assembly line was just a reminder that a job isn’t only a way to take care of your family, but it’s also about a sense of identity and dignity.” — Dr. Rajiv J. Shah
In 2015, Shah left the federal government and founded and served as managing director at Latitude Capital Group, a private equity firm in Washington, D.C., that specializes in investments in power and energy projects in emerging markets, particularly in Africa and India.
After two years, he couldn’t tame his desire to make an even greater impact on global prosperity. Following the departure of Dr. Judith Rodin in March 2017, Shah, at the time a trustee of The Rockefeller Foundation, became the organization’s 13th president.
With an endowment of $4.5 billion, The Rockefeller Foundation has given away more than $18 billion in its 105-year history, and Shah believes today’s challenging times create a unique opportunity for philanthropy to play a more significant role than ever. To that end, he’s using his experience in the capital markets to forge more durable private-public partnerships.
“We live in a moment in time when our politics and governance are deeply fractured,” he says. “Most Americans have lost trust in Congress, the executive branch, big companies and institutions, and even the courts to address and solve the problems we face.
“In that context, I really think it’s never been more important than right now that philanthropy step up to the plate and rebuild trust and a sense of hopefulness. I have a real desire to bring unconventional partners together for some of the big challenges facing the world — tackling poverty, focusing on health. We know that when you get the right kind of partners, you get results much quicker.”
Under the leadership of the 45-year-old Shah, the foundation developed the U.S. Jobs and Economic Opportunity Initiative, which includes programs to support wage growth, benefits, economic development, and programs related to taxation.
The program was inspired, in large part, by his father’s successful career. After joining The Rockefeller Foundation, one of the first trips Shah made was to Dearborn, home of the historic Ford Rouge Assembly Plant, where today the F-150 is produced. His dad tagged along for the visit.
“Visiting that assembly line was just a reminder that a job isn’t only a way to take care of your family,” Shah says, “but it’s also about a sense of identity and dignity. For my dad it wasn’t just financial; it was what came from being a contributor and growing his career, seeing others grow, and being proud to work at Ford. We need to go back to a country where people are ridiculously hopeful about our future, because (I’m) confident that if we work hard and play by the rules, we’ll thrive.”
Shah’s parents still live in the same house where he grew up. His mother, a retired Montessori teacher, is a volunteer who teaches reading skills to second- and third-graders.
“We love Detroit,” says Shah, who returns to his hometown whenever his schedule allows. “I had the opportunity to grow up and learn a set of values that are really grounded, and I feel I have a unique responsibility to give back to the city and be part of all that’s going on there.
“It’s really fantastic. The last time I was there I visited with all sorts of community groups, and I was surprised to find some of my former colleagues had moved to Detroit and were part of rebuilding the city — starting small businesses, investing in housing, and thriving there.
“It has clearly become an edgy and exciting place to be, and we need to make sure it succeeds so people can really feel in their hearts and minds that this is the greatest country in the world to live in. Together, we’re going to build access to that American dream.”